Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Spotlight on a young professional


Yes, dear reader, you have now turned to that part of the newspaper where we traditionally focus on some amazing young professional in the Des Moines area as an inspiration for those of us who might be slacking just a bit and need to shape up. These are always great stories of great people doing great things. What’s there not to love?

But, honestly, don’t these stories make you a little depressed? Take last week’s story where we headlined Bob, who, at 32, owns three successful Internet businesses, raises two kids with his first and only wife, and, when not coaching youth soccer in Johnston, spends vacations in Kenya caring for two-dozen orphaned children for whom Bob has donated a kidney, one finger, and his Y membership. Really.

Perhaps it’s time to look through a different lens.

Johan de Niet sits across from me. Intense. Hair pulled back in a knot. Bearded in a Shroud-of-Turin sort of way. Sadness pulls at the corner of his eyes as his mouth smiles across the table. He’s Dutch but talks with a strong Australian accent, and it takes me a couple of beats to catch up to the cadence. But when I do, I’m caught in the song of it all.

“If I was going to teach someone to surf, I’d take them fishing,” Johan says. “To surf, you have to learn how the ocean works, go for a swim in it, get comfortable in it, know where to enter, know where to exit. You have to know the sea a little bit. Get into trouble a little bit. Find your way out.”

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I suspect Johan has never written a resume. However, if he did, it would be very short and very succinct. “Johan de Niet. 32 years old. Single. Lives in The Hague, Netherlands. Sociable. A little bit crazy. More friendly than you are used to.” And at the bottom, the most important piece of information — “Occupation: surfer.”

joes1Johan began surfing at the age of 9. He fell in love. School was thrown to the side because all he could think about was waves. Family was left behind because he wanted to go to Australia where the big waves could be found. Relationships with women floundered because surfing was a demanding mistress. None of it mattered. He wanted to surf.

“Just because you enter the water doesn’t mean you’re the runner of the sea, you know?” he says. “Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you go to heaven. Surfing is more than just catching a wave. For a real surfer, the wave has meaning.”

By the age of 16, Johan was living in Australia, surfing with “the old pros.” At first he was laughed at and ridiculed, but he survived the initiation and stayed for six years. His goal during that time was not to become a champion surfer on the circuit. Rather, he wanted to surf the waves the champions surfed.

“When you go surfing at a strange spot, you have to ask the locals, ‘What are the dangers here? Where do I exit, where do I enter? What are the hazards?’ If you’re not prepared, you’re in trouble,” he says.

Johan returned to The Hague. A dark time descended. Alternative pleasures blocked his path. His sense of self-worth faltered and caused him to stumble. And when it came to choosing between pain and love, he says he chose pain.

“Surfing is a long-term relationship,” he says. “Most of us are never going to be a world champion. The biggest fear in surfing becomes the biggest challenge. The challenge is between you and the sea and overcoming fear.”

joes2Johan is trying to put the black clouds of unnamed problems behind him. He’s changed his habits, changed his friends and is making plans. He sees his life as blessed, and now it is time to turn his back on his demons and chase the big waves.

But enough talk. With a clap on the back and a broad smile, Johan says to me: “Mate, let’s just go for a surf. We’ll go surfing together. The Hague is a great place. Nice sunny day. Surfing is for everyone. Not just surfing people. Let’s surf together, bro.”

Yesterday, I walked down to the North Sea. Young boys and girls were taking surf lessons. All clad in wetsuits and each with their own board, they surfed 12-inch waves on the nearly flat water. Only laughter rose above the roar of the ocean. And, apparently, pushing your buddy off the board was an integral part of this class. The teachers stood patiently on the shore and waited for the clock to run out.

One young boy had drifted away from the group. Looking straight out at the ocean, he laid his board flat, fingertips dragging through foamy surf. Lost in dreams of big waves, it seemed.

“Never fight the sea,” was what Johan told me. “Joe, never fight the sea.”

Spotlight on a young professional. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at Joe can be reached by email at

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